Alexander Cockburn | Kooksville – There and Back

Memo to Christine O’Donnell, the Sarah Palin of 2010, target of a thousand vulgar jokes on the talk shows, now desperately taking out ads in the state of Delaware, stating “I am not a witch,” hoping to reverse the slide that makes this zaftig Republican a very long shot against the dull Democrat, Chris Coons.

More than three decades ago, Jerry Brown was widely regarded as a kook, but here he is, at the age of 72, a decent bet to become governor of California again, despite the $120 million-plus of her own money that his opponent, former eBay boss Meg Whitman, has invested in the race.

Brown has always been one of the more interesting figures in American politics. His dad, Pat Brown, was also governor of California, a big-spending Democrat who ran the state in its golden age, when it used to get listed in economic surveys as a separate nation, the seventh largest economy in the world.

Brown Jr. took over this vast economy in 1975, proclaiming that America was entering an era of limits. He flourished the hippie bible, E.F. Schumacher’s “Small Is Beautiful.”

Minus the wife virtually compulsory in that era for all politicians, he refused to live in the costly governor’s mansion in Sacramento, built by Ronald Reagan. He garaged the gubernatorial limo and was ferried around in a modest sedan.

I remember going out to interview him for the Village Voice and hearing squeals coming out of megaphones set up outside the legislature. These were tape-recordings of whales, designed to alert startled visitors that this ascetic governor, educated in a Catholic seminary but now a frequent visitor to the Green Gulch Zen Center, was militantly in tune with the spirit of the New Age.

Brown was mostly a decent governor, friendly to the left. Jane Fonda and her then-husband, Tom Hayden, were in and out of his office.

After a year, he decided to make a late lunge for the Democratic nomination for president. In the opinion of the press corps, Jimmy Carter had it wrapped up. Using the family political connections of a young San Francisco transplant from Maryland named Nancy Pelosi, Brown barnstormed across the state and cleaned Carter’s clock. He went on to win seven more primaries.

But the Carter juggernaut had too much momentum. There, truly, is one of the more mysterious might-have-beens in American politics — if Brown had captured the nomination and defeated the Republican, Gerald Ford.

By this time, Brown was starting to get kookified. The press picked up on the nickname that Mike Royko, a bitter, booze-sodden columnist in Chicago, laid on Brown — “Governor Moonbeam” — and delightedly made fun of Brown for such enterprises as taking rock star Linda Ronstadt on a trip to East Africa.

Nonetheless, Brown has amazing self-recuperative powers. Counted out as a national political contender after he left Sacramento as a two-term governor, he became the main Democratic challenger to Bill Clinton’s nomination in 1992. The two have detested each other ever since.

Then, after a stint as a radio host on a radical Berkeley-based radio station, he successfully ran for mayor of Oakland and began his term in office by inviting the United States Marine Corps to stage war games titled “Urban Warrior” in the defunct Oakland Army Base.

And now, here is the erstwhile Gov. Moonbeam sitting on a six-point lead over Whitman, who is getting bad press for her lousy performance in the first debate with Brown, also for her treatment of her Hispanic former housekeeper booted out of the Whitman home after seven years’ faithful service when Whitman decided to enter politics and wanted to head off accusations she was employing an illegal immigrant.

Whitman is unalluring. She touts her business skills as eBay’s CEO, but her strategies for the company were swiftly reversed when she left. Many voters seem to be wearying of corporate executives, sitting on vast retirement packages and piles of pink slips for the workers they laid off, claiming the know-how to administer huge, beleaguered states like California.

California is in a fearful mess, shipwrecked in the era of limits that Brown predicted 34 years ago. Current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is set to slink off the political stage, greatly deflated from the arrogant star who rolled into Sacramento in his 6,000-pound Hummer in 2003.

It’s by no means a certainty that Brown will win, but if he does, it will surely be his final stint in public office, unless he’s brooding on a challenge to Obama’s renomination in 2012.

So Christine O’Donnell should take heart. There is a comeback from kooksville, though the exact escape route for O’Donnell is pretty hard to figure right now. On the Brown model, O’Donnell should have become a senator first, and only then dabbled in witchcraft.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through

Copyright 2010